6-String Banjo: The Necessary but Evil Capo


Harvey Reid has played and taught guitar for 30 years, was a former national Fingerpicking Guitar Champion, and has released 16 solo recordings of original, traditional, and contemporary acoustic music. In 1980 he wrote the first college textbook for folk guitar. He now lives in Southern Maine.


If it weren't for my extensive use of capos on guitar I doubt that I would have gotten excited by the 6-string banjo, or at least I would never have felt like I needed one. There is so much baggage attached to capos, and there is a stigma in the world of guitar about using them. "Cheaters" they are sometimes called, and it is implied that if you are a "real" guitar player then you don't use one. Well, I am a real guitar player, and I use one, and they have value. Period. You cannot imitate the sounds they prouce with any other means. Period. And on a 6-string banjo, they become extra valuable, and provide a vital tool for getting the "banjo" sound. There are four reasons for this....


One: People are not used to hearing a banjo play a note as low as an low guitar E. The lowest note on a 5-string is the same note as the 10th fret of the lowest string of the guitar, almost an octave higher than the guitar's lowest note. If you want to make people feel the usual banjo tonality, you have to use the ultra-low notes cautiously and sparingly.


Two: A banjo responds dramatically to the use of a capo, and there is world of difference in tone from one position to another when you use it, more so than with a guitar.


Three: The higher you go up a banjo neck (5 or 6-string) the prettier and more penetrating the notes become. On an acoustic guitar, this is not the case, and the highest notes are weak and have little sustain and not as useful. You can capo a banjo 10 frets and it still sounds sweet and round. A guitar is pretty much useless with a capo higher than 7, and most people rarely go above 5.


Four: Banjos have a longer neck, and more frets clear of the body, and less of a body to get in the way, so you can really use the high positions much more freely than on an acoustic guitar. The higher notes not only sound good, but they are accessible. This is very hard for an acoustic guitar player to get used to, especially if you have played bluegrass and did any time on an old Martin that wouldn't play in tune above the 7th fret anyway. It's also physically hard to play way up high on a guitar, and it is not on the banjo.


When a traditional guitar player picks up a 6-string banjo, you head for the the nut and for the lower notes instinctively, and that just isn't where the best sounds come from the instrument.
When I play the 6-string banjo, I think of the 5th fret capo as my "home" position, and I capo up to 10 and down to 0 to get different tones and to play in different keys. On guitar, open position is "home" and you capo up a few as needed, and it is foreign thinking to go much higher. If I am playing behind a guitar in G, I will either capo 5 and play in D position or capo 7 and play in C position, and I still have a lower note than a 5-string banjo can play, even when in C tuning, and with the longer neck of the banjo to work with and the sweet-sounding high notes, I can play very "banjo-like" rolls and licks behind a rhythm guitar. The other trademark thing in the 5-string's sound is of course the drone 5th string, which ranges between G and B or C usually in pitch. If I have a capo 7 and play in C position on guitar, I have a high B, and the 2nd string of my instrument fretted at the 1st fret above the capo is the 5-string banjo's 5th string G drone. With some rolls in the middle strings, I can drone that note to where it sounds like a 5-string.
I think that if more 6-string banjo players used the capo more they would enjoy themselves more. Next time we will talk about the partial capo, the 6-string banjo player's other best friend.

© by Harvey Reid (2002)

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